I expect you’ve gathered that I have been asked to compete on the next series of Celebrity Mastermind, which is filmed in Manchester next week for broadcast on BBC1 over Christmas and New Year. It goes without saying that I am flattered to be asked, and excited, and terrified. I have known for three weeks and have been mainlining quiz books ever since. (Even though you can’t actually revise general knowledge – it is, after all, about everything – I have found that testing myself has been good exercise for my brain and it has unlocked quite a bit of knowledge that’s already in there. Also, it’s good fun.) I have been forbidden from revealing my specialist subject, for the simple reason that if anybody helpfully asks me a question on it in a public forum, that question will then be disqualified for use on the programme. (I seem to remember running into this grey area with Richard last year on 6 Music, when listeners helpfully sent in test questions on Rasputin, unless I’m getting the chronology of it wrong?) Anyway, after Tuesday, when I spend the day in Salford Quays, I’ll at least be able to reveal what many have already guessed, although not how I got on, obviously. I shall abide by Mastermind‘s official secrets act until it’s broadcast.
Here’s what’s really weird about what is already a surreal situation. I’ve always felt at one remove from the sort of people they get on Celebrity Mastermind – or indeed, Celebrity Anything. Quite a few people I know have been on Mastermind – Richard, Stuart Maconie, Stewart Lee, Lucy Porter, Rhys Thomas, Giles Coren – but I consider all of them to be more “famous” than me. Stuart’s an established name on Radio 2, and it doesn’t get much more mainstream and housewives’ favourite than that, while the others are on television regularly. (Despite Richard’s forelock-tugging humility shtick, I consider his having been a panelist on Have I Got News For You and Never Mind The Buzzcocks the equivalent of making it. I’m not sure being a panelist on What The Dickens? on SkyArts is.)
I don’t feel insecure about not being famous. I get stopped in the street about just as often as I can handle, and many of those occasions are for Mark Steel anyway. What I’m insecure about is the already generous net of “Celebrity” finally widening to include me. It seems they really are starting to run out of actual celebrities. It was bound to happen. Richard enjoys telling of the time he was described in Cheddar as “nationally known.” I am happy to be “known” – most of my work happens in the public domain, albeit as a writer, I feel more comfortable than I do as a performer or broadcaster. Radio is a much more subtle and intimate form of communication than being on the telly. So it’s ironic that Celebrity Mastermind will put me on early-evening BBC1. (If my early experience of Telly Addicts – another early evening BBC1 quiz show – was anything to go by, it might actually get me recognised in the street afterwards.) “Celebrity” is not a profession; it is a condition, and a condition that is conferred upon you. If the word has its roots in “celebration”, that no longer holds true; many of today’s “celebrities” are anything but celebrated. Cat Bin Lady was, briefly, a celebrity. So is Louise Mensch.
Again, I am sworn to secrecy, but I have been told the identities of the three co-participants I will be up against on the day, and they are all recognisably famous. Your mum and dad would know who they are, to look at, if not in all three cases, actually name. If they are still alive, even your grandparents would know them. This is not a given; I have not known everybody who competed on the previous eight series of Celebrity Mastermind – if they were presenters of TV shows that I don’t watch, I didn’t necessarily recognise them, or their names. I will be that person on the night. I will be the one whose face and name leave many viewers clueless. Let’s face it, I am now part of the problem. By being on a programme with Celebrity in the title, I am adding to the desecration and belittlement of the word. Journalists love to describe people like me as “Z-list” although this is ironic, as journalists are just as likely to be asked to be on TV, where only hardened newshounds will recognise them from their picture bylines.
When I was growing up, if I didn’t recognise somebody on Celebrity Squares, I assumed it was because I was too young. I accepted without question that they were celebrities, because it said so in the title of the show. By that same token, by being on Celebrity Mastermind, I will appear to be a celebrity. Just as, say, Pixie McKenna, James Redmond, Hilary Kay and others I did not personally recognise did on the last series. (I found out who all three of these people were when their captions came up, of course: TV doctor, actor, Antiques Roadshow.)
I’m really thrilled to be on it, but because it’s Mastermind, and it gauges and rewards cleverness, not fame, and I’ve watched it all my life, and I want to do well (not win, just do well enough not to look like an idiot). I’m also excited to be able to make some money for – and give much-needed primetime publicity to – the charity of which I’m patron, Thomas’s Fund. I like quizzes. I like my own specialist subject. I like playing Mastermind at home. The C-word is the only fly in the ointment. And only a semantic fly in any case.
The car firm that is being sent to pick me up from Piccadilly Station on Tuesday is called Star In A Car. What if they operate on the basis that if you are a star, the driver will recognise you and pick you up? If mine doesn’t – and unless he records and keeps every edition of What The Dickens? on SkyArts, or he watches 6 Music on the webcam when one of the regular daytime presenters is ill, he seriously might not – I may have to pay for my own cab to the studio.
Right, back to my revision.